Chapter Corner

Five Steps to Improve Productivity and Morale

Posted in: Features, November/December 2017

Productivity has been the mantra of the industry for the last two decades – and it’s not stopping anytime soon. The U.S. Census Bureau reports positive gains for May 2017, total construction spending is up 6.1 percent from May 2016. The result is that companies are implementing new tactics to meet the high demand. Prefabrication, with its substantial time saving benefits, is becoming more prevalent as part of those new tactics. When utilizing prefabrication methods, it must be paired with knowledge and implementation of good ergonomics to recognize those time savings. Prefab gains can easily be offset with labor downtime and high injury/workers comp expenses.
 
In prefab shops where repetitive motion is the norm, poor ergonomics is a major cause of worker fatigue and discomfort. Fatigue and discomfort caused by poor ergonomics can result in injuries, lost time, and significant setbacks to a job’s timeline.
 
There are several factors that can lead to poor ergonomics: bad habits, such as slouching or hunching over; inefficient and time-consuming workflows; ill-designed workstations that force workers to strain themselves to complete the task; improper use of a tool, causing a muscle strain; and tools that are difficult to move. Below is a quick list to help identify trouble spots and easy solutions to mitigate the problems. The goal is to decrease fatigue and injuries, while increasing productivity.
 
1. POSTURE

Fatigue and pain can occur simply due to poor posture. If a workstation is too low, a worker will be forced to bend over to complete the task. If not addressed, potential health problems caused by poor posture can include arthritis, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs, muscle strains, and low back pain.
 
The Fix: Adjust workstations to the appropriate height to encourage proper posture. Standing postures are used almost exclusively in the electrical trade. The correct position is characterized by a straight back, relaxed shoulders, upper arms by the side and elbows bent about 90 degrees. Workers will be able to perform tasks with little wasted movement, leading to time savings along with reduced fatigue.
 
2. PROXIMITY/ORGANIZATION

Electrical prefab shop operators often have multiple work areas to bend, thread, and cut conduit, and those at the jobsite may have to leave the building for certain steps. Having multiple workstations is labor intensive and increases the potential for injuries. Moving between workstations not only wastes time, but it also increases strain on feet, knees, and the lower back. If floors are slick from oil or littered with extension cords and debris, these hazards increase the risk for a stumble or a fall when moving between workstations. Expanded work spaces may also require workers to reach for the tools they need to perform the task at hand. Reaching away from the body increases torque on multiple joints, including the lower back. Back pain is a common problem and can severely impact the morale and productivity of a worker. 
 
The Fix: Consider positioning workstations as close as possible, which may include combining workstations, to eliminate wasted motion while speeding up production. It is important to eliminate carrying material long distances between workstations to decrease the risk of knee bursitis and lower back pain. Look for workstations with storage and organization options to help keep floors clear. Additionally, arrange a workstation with the heavier, more frequently used tools close to the worker. This will reduce the need for awkward extension of arms or leaning/twisting of trunk.
 
3. LIFTING

The workforce is often required to lift heavy objects, including conduit, bender shoes, tools, wire, etc., off the ground, which may cause pain in any part of the body. The simple action of bending over to lift an item from the ground, including lightweight objects, increases strain on joints and puts the muscles protecting joints at a mechanical disadvantage because they cannot exert as much force. This strain can result in muscle tears, arthritis, and disc herniation.
 
The Fix: Store objects on shelves or tables that are positioned above knee-height. Workers will be able to lift objects faster, reducing wasted movement and time. As a result, the solution decreases strain on the body and reduces operator fatigue. 
 
4. MOBILITY

Worksites and prefab shops typically require moving heavy objects from point A to point B. For example, an electrician will often use arm strength to move cable and rope required for a pull. Without a break, this labor-intensive action causes lower back pain, muscle spasms, and a loss of ability to perform the required task.
 
The Fix: Reinforce utilization of carts. Carts mounted on casters provide easy mobility on a worksite or within a facility. It is recommended to use carts with a clear line of sight, which allows for visibility when transporting materials. These relatively simple features on a cart will help combat worker fatigue and increase productivity.
 
5. REPETITION

Prefabrication by its nature is performing the same task over and over. This process, along with holding static positions, wears down the muscles that perform the same task repeatedly. Workers who continue to perform a repetitive task to the point that they are in pain are experiencing inflammation. Inflammation causes damage to healthy tissue and may lead to various forms of tendonitis, including carpal tunnel syndrome.
 
The Fix: Manual tools in prefabrication shops increase the risk of tendonitis and inflammation and should be replaced with battery tools. Encourage short breaks every 30 minutes to pause and stretch arms and legs. This process restores blood flow to hard-pressed tissues and relieves any discomfort. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) encourages periodic stretching. Create a “Tips to Stretching” flyer and hang it up in a breakroom. 
 
Some companies, like Greenlee, are passionate about ergonomics and safety, both in the development of new products and in their own manufacturing environments. Before the start of each shift, teams take part in “Box Talks,” a meeting where workers learn about the tasks to be accomplished during the shift and participate in warm-up stretches. Stretching loosens knots in muscles which if ot warmed up, may cause the worker to stall mid-lift. The result could be a dropped load, pulled muscle, or a more serious injury. These types of implementations come at the guidance of OSHA. Their Guidelines for Safety and Health Programs report states that safety and health programs help businesses:
 
  • Prevent workplace injuries and illnesses
  • Improve compliance with laws and regulations
  • Reduce costs, including significant reductions in workers’ compensation premiums
  • Engage workers
  • Enhance their social responsibility goals
  • Increase productivity and enhance overall business operations
 
It’s no secret that the electrical industry is dangerous. And using tools daily and in a repetitive pattern either in a prefabrication shop or at a jobsite, can result in injuries, pain, and lost efficiency. The key to hedge these troublesome issues is to have employees use ergonomic tools safely. When people think “productivity,”
they should think “ergonomics.” Implementing robust practices, such as dynamic stretching and investing in ergonomic friendly workstations, not only reduces wasted time and costly injuries, but it can also result in workers feeling appreciated because their safety is prioritized. And appreciated people work harder, ultimately increasing the magic word – productivity.
 
Jacob was named Ergonomic Specialist for Greenlee Textron in August 2016. He is responsible for consulting with the engineering team to design new ergonomic tools, concepting and executing testing for new Greenlee products, and educating customers on the impacts of ergonomics in the industry. Jacob was named Ergonomic Specialist for Greenlee Textron in August 2016. He is responsible for consulting with the engineering team to design new ergonomic tools, concepting and executing testing for new Greenlee products, and educating customers on the impacts of ergonomics in the industry.